June 2, 2011— -- The food pyramid that represented a healthy diet for almost 20 years now gives way to a food plate, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced today.
First lady Michelle Obama, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled the new icon. It's called MyPlate, and it has four colored sections representing fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins. Next to the plate is a smaller circle representing dairy products.
"MyPlate is a truly simple, powerful visual cue to help people adopt healthy eating habits at meal times," said Vilsack.
On MyPlate's website, the USDA emphasizes several important nutrition messages: eat smaller portions, make at least half the plate fruits and vegetables and avoid sugary drinks.
Nutrition experts believe a plate is a good choice.
"It answers the simple question, 'What should my plate look like at any given meal?'" said Baltimore nutritionist Monica Reinagel, author of "Nutrition Diva's Secrets for a Healthy Diet."
The original pyramid was released in 1992 and included the four food groups stacked in the shape of a pyramid with the number of recommended servings a person should eat from each group in a day. The widest part of the pyramid shows the foods that should make up most of the diet -- breads, cereals and grains. Fats occupy the top of the pyramid.
The USDA revised the pyramid in 2005. The new symbol expanded the number of food groups to six and also included a person walking up steps on the side of the pyramid to emphasize the need for exercise.
Nutrition experts are glad to see both versions of the pyramid go. They say they were complicated, and sometimes gave the wrong ideas about certain foods.
"The food pyramid has been described by many as difficult to understand and as the obesity rates would suggest, has gone largely unheeded by many," said Martin Binks, clinical director of Binks Behavioral Health in Durham, N.C.
"The original icon was a bit misleading, e.g., all fats are bad," said Sara Bleich, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. "The [new pyramid] required consumers to go online in order to maximize effectiveness of the food guide."
Experts say the new campaign emphasizes the right points.
"The main message should be that half your plate should really be fruits and vegetables," said Kristin Kirkpatrick, wellness manager at the Cleveland Clinic.
"Fruits and vegetables are packed with fiber, essential vitamins and photochemical, which are cancer-fighting substances," said Susan Levin, director of nutrition education at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, D.C. Levin has worked with the USDA previously on its revised U.S. Dietary Guidelines.
The plate makes it easier for people to understand the importance of eating healthier food and also less of it.
"Portion size, even of healthy foods, plays a major role in controlling weight and reducing the risk of a number of chronic diseases," said Marisa Moore, national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "In counseling, I recommend using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate. Research shows that using a smaller plate -- or glass -- can help reduce the total calories consumed in a meal."
The First Lady says the USDA's new tool goes hand-in-hand with her "Let's Move" campaign designed to reduce childhood obesity by encouraging better nutrition and exercise, and experts Americans will focus on both diet and being active.
"I almost never have a conversation with a patient or consumer without mentioning the need for physical activity, and it's often the missing 'nutrient' in people's lifestyles," said Keith Ayoob, associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, N.Y. "It's hard to be optimally healthy without physical activity, and it can really be a game-changer in terms of what and how much you should eat."